This May, the all-electric Nio EP9 beat its own Nurburgring Nordschleife lap record by 19.2 seconds, lowering an already exceptional mark to a blistering 6 minutes, 45.9 seconds. Peter Dumbreck drove it through the Green Hell at a pace that looks downright frightening on the video taken by the onboard cameras. Today, we’re here at the Bedford Autodrome with the very same car for an exclusive first drive. That is, if I can stuff myself into it.
Flashback to the Shanghai motor show in April, where the EP9 built for Nio chief William Li — one of seven cars completed so far — awaits me for a fitting. It does not go well. If this carbon-fiber garment were a suit, the buttons would have popped: one, two, three. But after a crash diet and a visit to the barber, I just might be able to cram myself in, sardine style. I’m going to find out soon enough.
A small group of experts, engineers, and enthusiasts are forming a circle around the dark-blue EP9 being prepped to attack the Bedford circuit. The seat turns out to be a naked, non-adjustable carbon-fiber bucket. Where there once was a cushion is now the same slippery pale-blue protection foil as on the sills and down in the footwell. The meat in this hard-baked composite sandwich is 6 feet, 8 inches worth of Kacher, and that’s before the towering helmet and the protruding HANS (head and neck support) system are in place. This is going to be fun.
I’m just a passenger for now. The man at the wheel introduces himself as Tommy, who turns out to be a seasoned former race-car driver and a laid back, happy-go-lucky guy. While my torso is being roped with Sparco straps, my head still has enough freedom of movement to check out the lab-style dashboard. Right in front of me, a tall, full-width rectangular display has just come to life. Farther to my left, three more monitors are beginning to glow. The smallest one is attached to the hub of the steering-wheel. Six green lights on top of the windscreen are signaling to the mechanics that the high-voltage system is active. There isn’t a single airbag on board.
Off we go. Bedford’s so-called grand prix circuit is a 3.8-mile cone serpent worming across what was once a military airfield. The track has zero change in altitude. I have zero track knowledge, and zero self confidence. Thankfully, Tommy knows the track well. He gives me the spiel through the intercom. Do not straddle the curbs. Do not touch the buttons on the wheel or in the center stack. Do not alter the battery mode. In other words, don’t screw up this priceless piece of four-wheeled e-history.
During the warmup lap, Tommy rattles off some of the NP9’s insane performance numbers. The wide-body racer can allegedly accelerate to 60 mph in less than 2.7 seconds, to 125 mph in 7.1 seconds and onto a top speed of 194 mph. True, the Bugatti Chiron is as quick or quicker off the mark, not to mention it has a higher maximum speed and longer driving range. But for a purely electric vehicle, the Nio’s 1 megawatt (roughly 1,360 horsepower) max-power output and the massive 1,091 lb-ft of estimated peak torque are simply sensational.
About a third into lap two, Tommy starts mumbling to himself. Late apex, late apex, and again. Brake early here. And there. Then out of the blue he slips into total attack mode. Cerebrum and cerebellum start to slug it out in a corner-by-corner boxing match as my spine fights a losing battle against the low ceiling, the shockwaves from below, and the g-force salvos. The EP9’s largest digital display is recording every single second of this assault on body and mind: 2.21 g lateral acceleration, 1.4 g deceleration, 147 mph at detection point two. Whenever a digit lights up green, it signals a new best. Needless to say, the numbers are pinging green for the remainder of this lap. And the next.
Back in pit lane, getting out of the passenger seat and into the driver’s seat are two giant gymnastic embarrassments. The seat acts like a slide, spooning the body into an embryonic driving position: bum too far forward, legs akimbo at an angle that hurts, the head fixated by HANS, the helmet compromising the field of vision. I feel like a piece of human origami art aiming for the bin. But this doesn’t stop the sadists strapping me in from pulling my four-point belt tight, then tighter still. Why don’t you push the pedal box further forward, Georg? Because it’s already about to crack the bulkhead.
Through the intercom, I can hear myself wheezing, loud and clear. Thumbs up? Thumbs up! With a bit of luck, I should at least better my own lap time set earlier in a Škoda Octavia rental car. But first things first: Hit the big black button on the panel between the seats to select Power Mode 1, put a hoof hard on the brake pedal, then pull the right shift paddle to engage drive. Let’s go!
Never mind the cramped cabin. What makes the mind boggle right now are a staccato of alien noises. Like intermittent driveshaft clutter, yelping transmission whine, tires drumming in all four wheelwells, and the high-pitched hissing of a brace of electric motors, two up front and two in the rear. The EP9 provides electric mobility in its purest and simplest form: on/off, forward/reverse. That’s it. No gears to select but neutral, no driving programs to choose from, no torque vectoring to worry about, no chassis-related trickeries like rear-wheel steering or active anti-roll bars. Braver men might have played with the brake balance, ABS intervention, and ESP assistance. But I’m a coward, we all know that.
Everything OK, Georg? Absolutely. No sweat at all. If it wasn’t for chafing my shin bones, a brooding cramp in the left thigh and my eyeglasses being bump-steered in different directions, everything would be fine and dandy. Since pedal modulation is both physical and delicate, you must start thinking about your brake points before ever flooring the throttle. As soon as the floodgates open, the torque tsunami flattens you in the seat like a mighty breaker. Although the pedal effort required to make the cooled-off Alcon discs perform could easily kickstart a truck engine, the deceleration is mental. Absolutely mental.
One more familiarization lap, and then you may increase the power from 362 hp to 510 hp — per axle — which still is several hundred horsepower short of the Nio’s no-holds-barred ludicrous mode. Everything is happening faster now. Corners approach at warp speed, working the steering becomes physical, not knowing the track doesn’t help. Hold this pace, Georg, because that’s what it takes to cool the driveline, the batteries, and the cabin. Ignore the numbers on the displays. I know the maximum stopping power is 3.3 g, the maximum lateral acceleration works out at 2.5 g. According to the data recorder, I am painfully slow, so why do I feel like a hero?
The oddly sized 320/705R-19 Avon tires are made of a secret rubber compound that sticks to the pavement like fresh chewing gum. The cornering grip is simply out of this world, but so is the bone-rattling ride. Sight lines range from OK (straight ahead) to non-existent (rear three-quarter). The adjustable downforce has a noticeable effect, the directional stability is that of a full-size slot-racer, body movements are kept in check by an adjustable damping system, and a hydraulic actuator controls ride height. You guessed it: The Nio EP9 is a hardcore race car, totally electrifying and in no way street legal, a visitor from a different galaxy, merely passing through.
Back in the pits, a twist of the belt buckle releases the harness. What a relief. While the ECU logs out byte by byte, crackling like a dozen scrunched-up packets of chips, the steering-wheel monitor tells us that the range dropped from 295 to 167 miles after only five laps, while the state of charge fell from 100 percent to 55 percent. No big deal — replenishing the batteries is claimed to take only 45 minutes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the energy cell containers must come out of the car before the plug-in process can start. Since they weigh almost 700 pounds each, this exercise requires two strong men, an engineer with laptop, and a pair of transport cradles.
Now that the biggest shareholders have taken delivery of their personalized track-day specials, it was decided to manufacture a second batch of 10 more cars that have allegedly already been sold. The millionaires paying for this high-voltage hypercar are reportedly forking out somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million plus tax for the car, plus pocket money for incidentals like spare batteries, special toolkits, a high-voltage charger, and the qualified personnel to operate this high-tech toy.
Next on the agenda is the still highly provisional, re-engineered, road-ready EP9 evolution model, of which between 50 and 250 units would be built. If management does decide to convert the EP9 for road use, such a move would of course require a more user-friendly charge concept — ideally, inductive charging. Airbags would have to be added to meet the most basic crash protection requirements, and filling the extra-wide sills with lithium-ion batteries may cause problems as far as side impact performance is concerned. According to the EP9’s instruction leaflet, the driver must remain seated in case of a malfunction no matter what. Why? Because one leg earthed outside the car and the other leg insulated inside could cause a terminal short-circuit. That wouldn’t pass muster with safety regulators if the car were to be homologated for the street.
Although there are still a lot of ifs and buts hovering above the project, Nio wants to keep its options open as it uses the EP9 to boost image and brand awareness. According to those in the know, producing electric vehicles is only part of Nio’s future business model. If all goes according to plan, stakeholders like Bitauto (digital services), Tencent (Internet, social networks, media), and Lenovo (laptops, smartphones) will use future Trojan horses like the almost production-ready Nio ES8 for marketing purposes, too. Wishful thinking? Well, Tencent has 830 million users who spend 95 percent of their online activities with this particular provider. Which is another way of saying that the future is now, and the Nio EP9 is doing a remarkable job promoting it.